Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, visiting conductor Charles Dutoit led the first of the two programs he prepared for his two-week visit to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). The selections offered a slightly idiosyncratic take on nationalism. The first half presented two French composers, Maurice Ravel and Édouard Lalo, both celebrating Spanish exoticism. The second half was firmly rooted in “Englands green & pleasant Land” (as William Blake put it) with the music of Edward Elgar.
The program began with Maurice Ravel’s 1908 “Rapsodie espagnole,” the orchestration of the original version for two pianos composed the preceding year. The music is particularly striking for its suggestive qualities. There are an abundance of motifs, some of which are almost persistent unto an extreme; but it is hard to say that any of them ever unfold into a theme. The subtlety of the logic behind the music’s four episodes (one hesitates to call them movements) emerges with crystal clarity in the two-piano version; but it acquires a new depth in Ravel’s approach to orchestration, not only through his rich palette of instrumentation but also in how those motifs migrate through the ensemble, acquiring different colors in the course of their peregrinations.
Dutoit conducted with a thorough understanding of all the details of Ravel’s logic. However, with all the familiarity that such thoroughness brings, it was clear from his performance that he still has a passionate love for that gift for expressiveness that sustains this composition. “Rapsodie espagnole” was one of Ravel’s first major works for orchestra; but it also turned out to be one of his most ingenious. Under Dutoit’s baton, SFS gave the audience a grand tour of that ingenuity, getting last night’s concert off to a splendid start.
A much firmer grounding in melodic content then emerged in Lalo’s Opus 21 “Symphonie espagnole” in D minor, composed a little over 30 years earlier in 1874. This was written for the Spanish virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, but Lalo chose his title well. While Sarasate was given abundant opportunity to display his talents, none of those opportunities involved a cadenza. Rather, the work is structured in five movements, each in a traditional form, in the course of which the violin takes most of the responsibility for introducing an extensive assortment of Spanish themes. Because the violin part is so demanding, this “symphony” is often prepared by violinists entering competitions.
Last night’s soloist, James Ehnes, has progressed far beyond having to prove himself through competitions. He has taken firm command of a repertoire that goes as far back as the solo compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach and has advanced to the end of the nineteenth century (at least for now). His recital program last April for Chamber Music San Francisco included sonatas by Gabriel Fauré and Camille Saint-Saëns, so it was no surprise that Lalo was just as much in his comfort zone. While he may have been particularly noticed for his “star turn” in the final movement, involving playing one string pizzicato while bowing another, he was particularly impressive when Lalo gave him melodic lines that glided seamlessly from one register to another. Nevertheless, in the midst of all that virtuosity he had to command, his attention was always in tune with Dutoit; and the chemistry between them was thoroughly engaging.
Dutoit’s selection for the second half of his program was Elgar’s 1899 Opus 36 set of orchestral variations, which the composer called “Enigma.” The variations constitute a series of character sketches of significant figures in Elgar’s life (one of which happens to be an English bulldog), with a self-portrait for the Finale. Like Ravel, Elgar had a keen ear for orchestration; and instrumental color plays a major role in establishing each character, not just through sonority but often through particular idioms of performance technique. Elgar provided his own descriptive texts for each of the variations. These serve as a useful guide for “first contact;” but, as one gets to know this composition, one can just as easily put aside the specifics and enjoy it as a tone poem celebrating the diversity of human (and canine) nature.
This seemed to be the approach the Dutoit took last night. His sense of balance was always acute enough to allow the theme to emerge through each variation, no matter how much Elgar may have cloaked it in a rich orchestral fabric. This is also music that depends heavily on the rhetoric of gradual crescendo, first in the ninth variation (“Nimrod”) and then in the Finale, which begins in a burst of energy and must then build from there to the final cadence. There is an ad libitum part for organ at the very end of the coda, just when you think the dynamics cannot get any more intense; and I felt a pang of regret at the absence of that last kick to the crescendo logic of the Finale. However, even without that “cherry on top,” Dutoit’s command of crescendo was perfectly attuned to Elgar’s logic, allowing the composer’s most expressive moments to shine with all the brilliance they deserve.